Confederate General William "Extra Billy" Smith: From Virginia's Statehouse to Gettysburg Scapegoat

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Winner of the 2013 Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr. Literary Prize Award, given by the Robert E. Lee CWRT of Central New Jersey.

William “Extra Billy” Smith, the oldest and one of the most controversial Confederate generals on the field at Gettysburg, was also one of the most colorful and charismatic characters of the Civil War and the antebellum Old South. Despite a life full of drama, ...

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Confederate General William Extra Billy Smith: From Virginia's Statehouse to Gettysburg Scapegoat

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Winner of the 2013 Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr. Literary Prize Award, given by the Robert E. Lee CWRT of Central New Jersey.

William “Extra Billy” Smith, the oldest and one of the most controversial Confederate generals on the field at Gettysburg, was also one of the most colorful and charismatic characters of the Civil War and the antebellum Old South. Despite a life full of drama, politics, and adventure, until now very few books have been written on Smith since a biased account in the 19th century by his brother-in-law. Scott L. Mingus Sr. has ably filled this historical void with Confederate General William “Extra Billy” Smith: From Virginia’s Statehouse to Gettysburg Scapegoat.

Known nationally as “Extra Billy” because of his prewar penchant for finding loopholes in government postal contracts to gain extra money for his stagecoach lines, Smith served as Virginia’s governor during both the War with Mexico and the Civil War, served five terms in the U.S. Congress, and was one of Virginia’s leading spokesmen for slavery and States’ Rights. Extra Billy’s extra-long speeches and wry sense of humor were legendary among his peers. A lawyer during the heady Gold Rush days, Smith made a fortune in California and, like his income earned from stagecoaches, quickly lost it.

Despite his advanced age Smith took the field and fought well at First Manassas, was wounded at Seven Pines and again at Sharpsburg, and marched with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania. There, on the first day at Gettysburg, Smith’s frantic messages about a possible Union flanking attack remain a matter of controversy to this day. Did his aging eyes see distant fence-lines that he interpreted as approaching enemy soldiers—mere phantoms of his imagination?—or did his prompt action stave off a looming Confederate disaster? What we do know is that his calls for support diverted limited Confederate manpower away from attacks against Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill that might have turned the tide of Southern fortunes in Pennsylvania.

Mingus’s biography draws upon a wide array of newspapers, diaries, letters, and other firsthand accounts to paint a broad, deep, and colorful portrait of one of the South’s most interesting leaders and devoted sons. Complete with original maps and photos, Extra Billy Smith will satisfy anyone who loves politics, war, and a story well told.


“The life of William “Extra Billy” Smith is just as interesting as many better-known Civil War personalities, but the man who served as Virginia’s governor and a Confederate senator has been ignored by history. Scott Mingus, one of today’s most talented authors, remedies this oversight with an engaging and often humorous biography of one of the oldest generals in the Confederate army. This deeply-researched and well written study will elevate Smith’s memory and place in history to the prominence it deserves.” - J. David Petruzzi, author of The Complete Gettysburg Guide

“An outstanding work on one of the little known but much maligned generals in the Army of Northern Virginia. Scott Mingus’s research on the Gettysburg controversy and Smith’s performance is the best. He has also brought together the most information on an excellent brigade of Virginia regiments who fought from Bull Run to Appomattox.” - Robert J. Driver, Jr, author of 52nd Virginia Infantry

“Scott Mingus has written an engaging and well researched biography of a colorful character of the Confederacy. This book is sure to be a classic.”- Ted Alexander, Chief Historian, Antietam National Battlefield and the author of The Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781611211290
  • Publisher: Savas Beatie
  • Publication date: 5/19/2013
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 778,427
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 1, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The title of this review comes from a eulogy given at a reunion

    The title of this review comes from a eulogy given at a reunion of Smith’s regiment after his death. An obituary said that to follow Smith’s life was follow Virginia’s history. William “Extra Billy” Smith is a remarkable character. Businessman, politician, fierce advocate for state’s rights and solider all describe the man. He deserves a biography that captures all of these things and remembers his role in events. Scott Mingus manages to do this. “Extra Billy” is always the book’s centerpiece but the author never tries to expand his role in events. This disciplined approach makes the man more fascinating and the history clearer.
    “Extra Billy” starts life as a government contractor delivering mail. His uncanny ability to find addition charges gives him his nickname. Government contracts are part of the political spoils system requiring careful cultivation of office holders and solid political support. An election changing the party in power can ruin a man destroying his transportation empire. The author follows the twists and turns of the spoils system and transportation problems during the early 1800s.
    The law provides stable employment for a man with a growing family. A firm Democrat and a noted stump speaker leads to campaigning for the parties’ candidates. Campaigning accumulates favors and builds a following, leading to public office. Politics and campaigning is a rough and tumble world of speeches, whiskey and favors. “Extra Billy” refuses to provide whiskey and succeeds in spite of this. In the 1840s, “Extra Billy” works his way from stump speaker to governor but is unable to advance to the US Senate for a variety of political reason.
    The California Gold Rush beckons and we move west, not to look for gold but to build the Democratic Party. Smith and his sons engage in politics and business building wealth and influence.
    Back in Virginia, a seat in Congress puts us in the debates leading to secession. “Extra Billy” is a firm supporter of slavery, state’s rights champion willing to do almost anything to support his causes. His speeches and tactics bring notoriety upsetting the North while delighting the South. The author devotes about 60 pages to his terms in Congress, his causes and events of the 1850s. Seeing this time through Southern eyes is an interesting change. The author never falls into editorializing over Smith’s views or actions staying with what he did and his reasons for doing so.
    The heart of the book, about 200 pages, is “Extra Billy” and the Civil War. Well past military age, he is in his mid-sixties; “Extra Billy” has the courage of his convictions. He joins the war, first as a private citizen and then as the Colonel of a regiment. This is an insider’s view of the use and abuse of political appointments to military command. Smith admits to being “wholly unacquainted with drill or tactics” and he made little or no attempt to change this. Civil War lore is full of “Extra Billy” stories about his “commands”. White hair, an umbrella and a large hat only add stores that could make him the butt of jokes.
    However, “Extra Billy” is a lion on the battlefield. Cool under fire, fearless, with a huge amount of common sense and the ability to motivate men makes him an excellent commander. He fights from Fairfax Court House to Gettysburg going from private citizen to brigadier general. A little political pull moves his regiment to Early’s brigade where he prospers. Along the way, Smith is wounded several time and badly wounded at Antietam.
    Smith commands the smallest brigade in the AoNV at Gettysburg. Positioned on the far left of Ewell’s line, he “sees” advancing Union infantry late on the first day. The resulting delays and adjustments have been used to fuel another of the Gettysburg’s “what if”. This is covered both in the book and in detail in a 16-page appendix.
    “Extra Billy” Smith is one of those Nineteenth Century larger than life personalities. Scott L. Mingus Sr. does justice to his life in an enjoyable and very readable book

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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